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Reliable Sources

Clinton's Proposed Disbarment and Giuliani's Extramarital Affair Leave Journalists Dealing with Aftershocks of Impeachment

Aired May 27, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: The president's scandal, back in the media spotlight. Are journalists relishing Mr. Clinton's proposed disbarment? Are there any standards for reporting on extramarital affairs? And has the press held Rudy Giuliani and other Republicans to a different standard?

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz, along with Bernard Kalb.

We begin with still more aftershocks of impeachment.


(voice-over): When an Arkansas panel recommended this week that President Clinton lose his law license, there was an unmistakable sense of deja vu.


JOHN ROBERTS, CBS NEWS CORRESPONDENT: It's a panel of five attorneys and one retired school teacher found the president to be guilty of serious misconduct and recommended that he be disbarred.



UNIDENTIFIED ABC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: If he does lose his law license, it would not have much practical effect. But Peter, it would be a further embarrassment to him and part of the legacy of the Lewinsky scandal.



BOB SCHIEFFER, CBS NEWS CORRESPONDENT: The irony here is that disbarment is a punishment that many Democrats favored during the impeachment proceedings.


KURTZ: The recommendation stems from what a federal judge has ruled was Mr. Clinton's false grand jury testimony about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

Another round in that story that never seems to end.

But the scandal may already be having an impact on the way the media cover the private lives of politicians. When New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's marital problems became the subject of tabloid frenzy, the story got plenty of play. But did the press go after him with the same kind of intensity as in the Clinton-Lewinsky story? Have other politicians been caught in the media dragnet? And what role does ideology play in the coverage of political sex scandals?


KURTZ: Well, joining us now, Joe Conason, columnist for "The New York Observer" and, and the author, with Gene Lyons, of "The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton," Jodie Allen, senior writer for "U.S. News & World Report," and Rich Lowry, the editor of "National Review." Welcome.

Joe Conason, the proposed disbarment of Clinton was treated as major news, as it should have been. But it is pretty small potatoes compared to impeachment. My question, will the press ever let this scandal go, or has it become enshrined in legislation as a kind of full employment act for journalists?

JOE CONASON, COLUMNIST, "THE NEW YORK OBSERVER": Well, having been told that people weren't interested in this any more when our book was coming out, I was glad to see that this could still be front page news, Clinton's, you know, problems, his continuing problems.

I think it's going to go on forever. It will go on after he leaves office. His -- if Hillary Clinton wins the Senate seat, it's going to continue, because the emotions that were engaged in this on both sides of the aisle are not -- they have not cooled.

KURTZ: But also because it's a winning issue for journalists, who basically feasted and subsisted on this all throughout 1998 and early 1999?

CONASON: Well, you tend to get -- he is an enormous celebrity now. He's not just another president, he's not a Gerald Ford, you know, he's not an ex-president. He is a giant celebrity around the world, in part because of the scandal. And I think for that reason he is -- he's meat for journalists forever.

KURTZ: The showbiz explanation -- Bernie.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Jodie, the scandals don't seem to have great adhesive value. They're there, but they seem to take no toll. We saw with Giuliani the voters were not very much interested. So let me put this question to you on a philosophical basis. Has there been a lowering of the -- of standards on the whole question of scandals, or is there a greater toleration of human behavior?

JODIE ALLEN, SENIOR CORRESPONDENT, "U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT": Well, I think both, Bernie, and I think that certainly the press is more willing to devote a lot of inches to political scandal, to sexual scandal, than it did in the past, although an awful lot of these stories have sort of been thrust upon them, and when we look at this disbarment story, that's news.

I mean, the problem there is not the press. The problem is the problem, that Clinton is being disbarred, and what a president is. So, I mean, it's so easy to blame the press for creating scandals when in fact Clinton created the scandal.

KALB: Just a quick follow-up. Is the media talking to itself when it sounds the trumpets on scandal? Because the voters seem to sort of wave it off.

KURTZ: Let me pick up on that question. Is there any argument that in an era when perhaps half of American marriages end in divorce, that the presidents has become kind of a bastion of Victorian prudery, that we are more excited about and shocked by and horrified by the fact that people have affairs than most voters when they're judging public officials?

CONASON: Well, not in their own personal behavior they're not, Howie. And we've clashed on this before. I said a long time ago that if this kind of coverage continues, then the stories of people in the media's own personal lives are going to become part of the story eventually, sooner or later.


RICH LOWRY, EDITOR, "NATIONAL REVIEW": Well, I think the press -- they're kind of decadent puritans. There's a sort of disapproval to a lot of this behavior, but then again, we revel in the details, and we want to hear every last bit of exactly what Clinton was doing in the Oval Office...

KURTZ: Sounds like the definition of hypocrisy.

LOWRY: ... and reporters -- and re -- and reporters actually asked Rudy Giuliani in some of these media scrums he had, of press conferences before he dropped out, Rudy, where do you sleep? and that kind of thing. So the media really...

KURTZ: But Rich, don't you think there was less intensity and outrage about Giuliani -- you know, people said he was a cad because he announced his separation on television before telling his wife. But there wasn't -- the difference between the way Clinton was treated -- and the two cases are very different, Giuliani didn't lie to a grand jury -- but don't you think Giuliani was treated much more as a political story rather than a moral outrage of a story?

LOWRY: Well, I think you can't separate that question from the substance of the cases. And I think Clinton's was more serious. He lied under oath. But I would disagree a little bit with you, Bernie. I think this really hurt Giuliani. That's what -- that's why he's not running. And sure...

KURTZ: Well, he also has prostate cancer, let's not forget. LOWRY: Yes, well, and only 23 percent of people cared about the affair, but that 23 percent were Republicans and conservatives, and that was hurting him in his base. So people do care about this stuff.

KALB: Yes, but you're separating care in terms of ideological and political differences. We're talking about care as a human problem across the board.

But I want to come back to the question we raised before, and it seems to be pivotal in our discussion. And that has to do with the question of whether the media is out of synch with what the public thinks are human priorities.

CONASON: Well, they discovered they were out of synch during the impeachment process, and they didn't care. I mean, in other words, there were some...

KURTZ: Well, they're out of synch, maybe, but they're out of synch with public opinion.

CONASON: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Capitol Hill, but that's...

LOWRY: No, no, no, no, no...

CONASON: ... they were out of synch with public opinion.

KALB: As well, you...


KURTZ: People were furious at the press.

CONASON: They were furious at the press...


CONASON: ... they hated the press much more than they were angry at the president, and the press really didn't care. And they -- and I don't think they care now.

ALLEN: And the press didn't care, because of the fact the public is semihypocritical on this subject too, or perhaps just can make a very clear distinction.

You read the tabloid press, and so you watch the tabloid TV, but then you back off and you shrug your shoulders and say, Yes, but look how strong the economy is. And so, you know, both things can be true.

KALB: Listen, you're a scholar, you're -- just let me pick up this one point. You're a scholar on the question of the media. We're talking here about the impeachment of President Clinton. In the subliminal minds of the public with respect to the press, is the press being impeached on a regular basis subliminally by the American public?

LOWRY: Well, I think if Giuliani had run, a major factor in his favor would have been a backlash against the press. He could have run against the press, because people do hate seeing reporters hounding these guys in such a vicious way. And an indication...

CONASON: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) press is supportive.

LOWRY: ... of this late last year, George W. Bush and the whole cocaine flap worked in his favor, because people didn't want to see him badgered by the media about it. So he got a pass on that.

KURTZ: Well, I would just make the brief observation that Rudy Giuliani, rather than being hounded by the press, actually the press kind of backed off while he was out with his very good friend, Judith Nathan, in fairly public places...

ALLEN: I think that's right.

KURTZ: ... which made it difficult to ignore.

LOWRY: It was hard for them to ignore.

CONASON: It's hard to argue that he was not hounded, or at least that they backed off when "The New York Post," which has supported him from the beginning of his mayoralty, ran 13 pages about this in one day.

KURTZ: Yes, but that was after, after...


LOWRY: ... once it broke, once it broke.

KURTZ: Help me...

ALLEN: Once it broke, they did not (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

LOWRY: Oh, you mean before -- yes, prior.

KURTZ: Before.

ALLEN: Right, they did not pursue this story...

CONASON: Oh, no, they definitely -- they gave him...

ALLEN: ... or looked for...

CONASON: ... a free ride for years, there's no question about that, in terms of pursuing the story at all.

KURTZ: Rich, some short answers -- short questions and short answers. Help me to understand what's fair game here. The president involved in an affair, obviously huge story, leads to impeachment. The mayor of New York City involved in an affair, big story because he's in a Senate race, which he drops out of.

What about if somebody's out of office? How come Newt Gingrich, who, after all, had been fooling around with a woman on the House payroll at the time of Clinton's impeachment, why wasn't that a -- as much of a story?

LOWRY: Because he's no longer an office holder, and he wasn't running in the race...

KURTZ: So...

LOWRY: ... so there's just less interest in it. But so...

KURTZ: If you give up your seat, you're cool?

LOWRY: More or less, yes.

KURTZ: What about -- OK, what about if you are somebody who is a conservative who talks about family values? Dan Burton, for example, later had to 'fess up to a child born out of wedlock.

LOWRY: This is the so-called hypocrisy standard, which I think unfairly is used to bite conservatives, because if we were really going to apply the hypocrisy standard fairly and generally, it would apply to everyone, because no one publicly supports adultery or lying or any sort of misconduct.


LOWRY: So under that standard, everyone's a hypocrite, and all their personal conduct is fair game. And I think...

CONASON: (UNINTELLIGIBLE), but look, look...

LOWRY: ... that standard's much too broad.

CONASON: ... look, look, look. Conservatives, as a rule -- and Giuliani was one of them -- have run on a -- often on a platform of morality, purity, family values, in other words, emphasizing this much more than just a Democrat who will have a picture of himself with his wife and kids, however hypocritical that might be. The emphasis on this kind of thing by conservatives opens them up to criticism...

LOWRY: So you're saying...

CONASON: ... when they are grossly violating those same...

LOWRY: So you're saying...

CONASON: ... principles in private.

LOWRY: ... since he's shut down smut shops, that means his private life...

CONASON: No, not, not, not just that...

LOWRY: ... is open, open season.

CONASON: ... not just that. No, no, his demand that the 10 Commandments be posted in the public schools and his fund-raising materials and on and on. I mean, he's one of the -- he's one of the least egregious violators of this. He's actually...

LOWRY: But...

CONASON: ... relatively, relatively honest about this stuff...

LOWRY: Those conditions are...

CONASON: ... and didn't attack the Clintons.

LOWRY: ... still legitimate on their own merits, no matter what he does...

CONASON: Sure they are.

LOWRY: ... in his private life.

CONASON: Sure they are.

LOWRY: So if you want to attack that policy, attack it frontally...

CONASON: No, no, you can...

LOWRY: ... don't go...

CONASON: ... discuss the policy...

LOWRY: ... rummaging around in his underwear...

CONASON: ... but then -- but then -- no, but...

LOWRY: ... to do that.

CONASON: ... then -- no, but then there's a question of how much does any politician live up to what they say they believe in? That's a legitimate question.

KURTZ: You two are going to have to go to opposite corners for a minute and cool off.

When we come back, more of our discussion, and should the media be the subject of the same kind of scrutiny?



Before we get back to our discussion, some viewer e-mail. Recently we asked whether the media should have pressed Rudy Giuliani to talk about his marriage.

One viewer wrote, "Yes, Rudy is the one who put it out there and embarrassed his wife. The press has been protecting him while castigating President Clinton."

Another viewer had these words for journalists, "Before they insult and advertise the private life of others, they should first be required to wear badges stating their own race, religion, age, political party, criminal record, sexual activity, and make themselves available for investigation."

Any volunteers?

Jodie, I -- real life example. This week, "The New York Daily News"' banner headline says that Ted Turner, the vice chairman of Time Warner, allegedly dating a 28-year-old woman who, it now appears, may have inflated parts of her resume. I would ask the question, who cares? Does this have any redeeming social value?

ALLEN: I think that it -- that to the extent that Ted Turner is a movie star, it has about the same level of interest to the public as all the many scandals that are constantly revealed about this star or that, and I think that's true.

KURTZ: So if you're well known as a journalist or media mogul or what have you, you're no different than a politician, in that your private life becomes fair game as well?

ALLEN: No, you're no different than a movie star, I think. And there is a distinction here. There -- a public figure, a person who's been elected to office, presumably carries an added responsibility for certain types of behavior, especially if, as Rich points out, they have been making large pronouncements about how the larger citizenry should behave or what sort of...

CONASON: Actually I pointed that out.

ALLEN: Oh, I'm sorry, Joe.

CONASON: The difference between the public and the press is that the public understands that this is entertainment, and they will look at these stories, they'll enjoy them, if that's all there is to watch on the cable shows, that's what they'll watch. And they separate that from their political judgments.

The press has to pretend that there's some larger public purpose in exposing...

KURTZ: An institutional, legal...

CONASON: ... these sexual peccadilloes, when there is none, yes.

KURTZ: ... societal...

LOWRY: Yes, but Howie, you...

KURTZ: So it's a pretense, in your view.

CONASON: I believe a lot of it is.

KALB: You raised a point about whether there being any redeeming social value. Of course that's not the test at all. It's more along the lines of what you've indicated, and what you've indicated. Personalities, celebrities, in this particular culture of ours, which is celebrity-saturated, people want to know what's going on. It has nothing to do with social redeeming values. It has to do with getting a chance to look through the peephole into someone else's life. It's entertainment. Half the magazines in the kiosks deal with this subject.


LOWRY: ... a lot of it is tabloid gossip. But Joe, the president lied under oath, and...

CONASON: That's a legitimate (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

LOWRY: ... and a lawsuit, that is -- that's...

KALB: It was a different ballgame.


KALB: ... that's a different ball game.

KURTZ: But have the media standards and the cultural standards shifted to the point where if Gary Hart were running for president today, and was revealed to have been on a boat with a woman not his wife, that he would not have to drop out of the race? In other words, does that now seem like the dark ages compared to all the other affairs, Democratic and Republican...

LOWRY: It depends...

KURTZ: ... that we've now all been through?

LOWRY: It depends very much on the circumstances. If the guy who's cheating has a wife who stands by him, as Clinton did, it makes a big difference. And that's what Rudy Giuliani didn't have, that's what Gary Hart didn't have. So these things are really case by case circumstances, I think.

And that's what we saw in the Giuliani...


KURTZ: Is it OK -- is it OK...

ALLEN: Gary Hart's wife stood by him.

LOWRY: Did she?

KURTZ: She stood a couple of steps away, actually...


KALB: Why don't we go back to the question that was hinted at before? If there is an invasion of privacy in the lives of politicians, what about you fellows gathered here as well? What about that? What about the invasion of privacy of reporters' lives so that everything is on equal footing? How do you feel about that?

ALLEN: Well, I don't see -- I don't see what the basis is for singling out reporters, unless they are celebrities, in which case they get treated like celebrities. I don't think the public would be very interested, any more than...


CONASON: Don't say that, and if you don't want to find out...

KALB: Howie's kind of life?

CONASON: ... how interested they would be.

ALLEN: Howie is a celebrity.

CONASON: You don't want to find out how interested they would be, and this is what I said, I warned of years ago, before Lewinsky, when Clinton's marital woes were grist for every journalist's and commentator's mill. None of these people would want their own private lives examined in that way.

And it would be terrible if it happened. But it could happen.

KURTZ: Rich Lowry, Joe suggests that Clinton has achieved some kind of show biz, Tom Cruise-like status, even more important than that of elected president, leader of the free world. And so I am wondering whether all of this becomes kind of a sport for journalists who maybe fear an Al Gore administration for no other reason than that it would be boring, after look at all the hours have spent on shows like this talking about, you know, these personal problems, as opposed to, say, you know, normal trade relations with China?

LOWRY: It's definitely easier and funner to talk about it, there's no doubt about it. And we have seen kind of a melding together of the political and the tabloid culture when it comes to the media. So I think Joe's exactly right about that.

KURTZ: And doesn't this cause you great anguish as a serious policy-minded journalist?

LOWRY: Yes, I'd prefer to focus on issues. "The National Review" said from the beginning, when Republicans, conservatives first started taking the scandal tack against President Clinton, that it was a mistake. It wouldn't work, and it'd be much wiser to go after him on substance.

But it's just -- it's much more alluring, scandals stuff, for a lot of reasons.

KURTZ: We will scratch you off our list for our future scandal shows. Rich Lowry, Joe Conason, Jodie Allen, thanks very much for joining us.

When we return, two other lingering controversies from the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, and the Associated Press commits a flagrant foul. That's all next in our Media Roundup.


KURTZ: Time now for our Media Roundup.

We begin with a battle over a book.


(voice-over): Best-selling author and ABC News analyst Jeffrey Toobin is under fire again for his book, "A Vast Conspiracy," a behind-the-scenes look at the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Earlier this month, Toobin and his publisher, Random House, agreed to correct several items about "Newsweek" reporter Michael Issakoff, for the book's paperback edition.

Now other players mentioned in the book are coming forward. "Washington Post" reporter Susan Schmidt is accusing Toobin of getting several things wrong about her coverage of the Lewinsky scandal. For example, Schmidt says, Toobin mischaracterized the accuracy of her reporting about Lewinsky's immunity discussions with the independent counsel's office. Late this week, Random House announced that they have rejected that request.

And former deputy independent counsel Sol Wisenberg, who worked under Kenneth Starr, is drafting a letter of his own, which alleges over 50 factual errors in Toobin's book. Among the complaints in Wisenberg's letter are that Toobin paints a false picture of Ken Starr as sexist, and that Toobin unfairly minimizes the role women played in the investigation.

Toobin is standing by his work, telling RELIABLE SOURCES, quote, "The notion that there are a stream of errors and Random House is running away from the book are both completely wrong."

Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon has been reprimanded for being a little too eager to help a reporter investigating Linda Tripp. During the Lewinsky scandal, "New Yorker" writer Jane Mayer (ph) discovered that Tripp had been arrested as a teenager. Bacon agreed to give her Trip's security form, which did not include the youthful arrest.

Now an internal investigation has found that Bacon violated the Privacy Act, prompting Defense Secretary William Cohen to criticize him for, quote, "a serious lapse in judgment."

Bacon says he was trying to strike a balance between Trip's rights and the public's right to know.

Finally, Mike Jarvis, the St. John's basketball coach, is mad at the Associated Press. Jarvis got plenty of national publicity after almost signing on with Michael Jordan and the Washington Wizards. But then the AP moved a story quoting his agent, Robert Ades (ph), as saying that Jarvis is now looking at some other coaching jobs.

Small problem: The AP didn't talk to Robert Ades, Jarvis's Washington agent, but some guy in New York named Robert Ades. That fellow explained what happened to ESPN radio.


ROBERT ADES: And I started getting these calls asking me questions. I honestly thought it was one of my friends trying to play a practical joke on me. So I decided to go along with it.



KURTZ: Ades threatened to sue over the quotes. The AP finally moved the story, setting the record straight, but no apology for the journalistic foul.

Up next, Bernie's "Back Page."


KURTZ: Time now for "The Back Page" -- Bernie.

KALB: So, how to explain this sudden explosion of interest in China these last few days?


(voice-over): Well, do you remember that phrase that came out of Watergate, Follow the money? This time, it's Follow the media. Across the board, they gave us a cram course in how to get the public interested in something the public normally gives a very low priority, and that's international affairs.

And how did the media stir up all that excitement? By making it personal, by reporting on how Mr. and Mrs. America were reacting to and might be affected by the China trade bill, if it passed or was rejected.

That's quite different from the way international policy is usually covered by the media, with all those big global phrases like balance of power, regional alliances, nuclear strategies -- in other words, the remote vocabulary of diplomacy.

But this time, the great China debate struck home, hit personal pay dirt, so to speak, because so many Americans saw themselves as having a huge personal stake in the outcome. And the media told their story, the grass roots pros and cons of organized labor, farmers, human rights activists, veterans' groups, religious leaders, corporate America, and others.

All that public involvement, plus a presidential blitz, produced great copy for the media, and they translated the story's complexities -- economic, political, diplomatic -- into explanatory day-to-day coverage with charts and diagrams and lots of it, too.

For example, the big broadcast networks gave the story the lion's share of their nightly newses between Monday and the Wednesday vote. (END VIDEOTAPE)

In other words, the media proved something that may have surprised even the media, that Americans can be interested in international policy, and that it isn't simply one big esoteric bore. And the media did that by reporting on what the China bill could mean for you.

There's nothing like that to grab your attention.

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb, thanks.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next time for another critical look at the media.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next. Al Hunt has a preview.

AL HUNT, GUEST HOST, "CAPITAL GANG": Howie, we'll talk about President Clinton getting his China trade bill and being threatened with disbarment. Republican Congressman Tom Davis of Virginia joins us for that, and much more, next on CNN.



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